She helped shape American modernism, but Georgia O’Keeffe’s letters show a different side to the artist. (Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, 1929. Supplied: Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/ Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation)
Acclaimed American painter Georgia O’Keeffe is as iconic today as Frida Kahlo. Creative innovators, they both presented striking visions of their time.
Kahlo was flamboyant, invoking Mexican traditions. O’Keeffe was minimalist, typically dressed in black or white.
Born in the American mid-west in 1887, O’Keeffe knew she would be a painter from an early age.
But it wasn’t until a friend delivered her abstract drawings and watercolours of dramatic Texan landscapes to Alfred Stieglitz that her career — and life — changed forever.
Stieglitz, a world-famous photographer and the most influential modern art gallerist in New York, recognised her originality and exhibited her work, making her famous and falling in love with her.
Their love was at first a passionate secret, but they later married, remaining soulmates until his death in 1946.
Long-lost letters written by O’Keeffe to her friend, filmmaker Henwar Rodakiewicz — recently acquired by the US Library of Congress — reveal rare insights into her art and life.
O’Keeffe wrote poetic letters about New Mexico’s climate. This reads, “the wind blows every afternoon”.
(Georgia O’Keeffe to Henwar Rodakiewicz, 1945. Courtesy of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Supplied: Library of Congress)
Dreams of New Mexico
The series of letters traces O’Keeffe’s experiences from when she visited New Mexico in 1929.
The west had beckoned, with its promise of new horizons and time alone, away from New York’s social spheres and her husband’s extended family.
Arriving in Taos, O’Keeffe stayed in Mabel Dodge Luhan’s house.
She became captivated by the beautiful setting in New Mexico — looking out to a sage-covered high desert plain cut by the Rio Grande and framed behind by the shadowed layers of the Sangre de Christo mountains.
She took to her easel immediately, attracted by the organic shape of a Hispanic church and spectacular canyons, mesas and mountains that Mabel’s husband, Tony Luhan, revealed on excursions in his Ford Model A.
A pattern was established with summers spent in New Mexico, exploring and painting, returning east with a new batch of paintings and resuming her life with Stieglitz in New York.
They corresponded whenever apart, with O’Keeffe reportedly declaring that she loved him more from a distance.
She was reasserting her youthful independence; building her own social network.
Leaving the Luhan household with its fascinating stream of visitors, she moved to Alcalde, south of Taos. Staying at the H&M Ranch, she painted ‘Back of Marie’s’, a view onto a series of unfolding rust-coloured hills.
Her friend and the ranch’s co-owner, Marie Garland, was married to Rodakiewicz.
Her recently-revealed letters show Rodakiewicz was a surprisingly significant figure in O’Keeffe’s life, shedding new light on her artistic development and personal life.
Separate letters, written by her husband to Rodakiewicz, have also been acquired by the Library of Congress.
“This is the period when she has discovered New Mexico for herself separate from Stieglitz, New York and Lake George, gaining independence as an artist,” noted Barbara Bair, curator in the Manuscripts Division, who transcribed O’Keeffe’s expressive handwritten letters.
O’Keeffe’s letters to Rodakiewicz, written over 18 years, reveal him as a trusted confidante, with whom she shared experiences, emotions, strengths and fragilities:
“I’ve been a long time resting myself since you went off into the sunset that afternoon — Now that I begin to feel good — really rested — I wish that I could see you — wish that I could look out over the desert with you for a moment.”
The letters to Rodakiewicz were intimate. (Georgia O’Keeffe to Henwar Rodakiewicz, 1939. Courtesy of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Supplied: Library of Congress)
O’Keeffe moved her summer base to Ghost Ranch, remotely situated with striking rock formations, writing to Rodakiewicz about her creative discoveries:
“I am painting an old horse’s head that I picked out of some red earth.
It is quite pink and all the soft delicate parts have been broken off.
This old head with a turkey tail feather so handsome I am on my second one and must do it again at least once more.”
Her time in New Mexico was a formative one. (Georgia O’Keeffe to Henwar Rodakiewicz, 1936. Courtesy of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Supplied: Library of Congress)
O’Keeffe found a house away from the main ranch buildings.
She was in her element hiking and painting in harsh conditions, a solitary figure in the landscape, often spending nights under the stars:
“After you left till a few nights ago it was always dark and cloudy at night up on the roof
But tonight the whole cliff is white and full of [colour] in the moonlight. I went up the ladder alone with my coat on pretty chilly and cheerless up there on the roof but the whole cliff is white.
And it seems some thing to tell you.”
Ms Bair finds this an evocative image.
“I love to think of her standing on the roof of her house at Ghost Ranch under stars,” she says.
O’Keeffe found herself in the deserts of New Mexico, and eventually moved there. (Getty: Joe Munroe)
Of the contrast this presented to her city life, Ms Bair says: “The skulls, the bones, the arid desert landscapes spoke to her, resonated with her, and replaced the Manhattan cityscapes and penthouse vistas in her work.
“It was not a complete transition. It was really adaptation of a combination life.”
That was the case until her husband, Stieglitz, died in 1946.
O’Keeffe declared in 1977, “I was free to live where I wanted. I always knew I’d live here”, moving permanently to New Mexico.
By then, O’Keeffe had acquired a second house, renovating a ruined adobe hacienda nearly 29 kilometres away in Abiquiu, creating a modernist dream home with a flourishing garden.
In this quintessential desert landscape, she found herself.
She had more than a “room of her own”, as Virginia Woolf advised, in the open-air spaces of her beloved painting places, and at her summer and winter homes, with her own friends.
Honoured in her lifetime with landmark retrospectives at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum, O’Keeffe died in 1986 aged 98.
Her legacy records her as a vital figure in American Modernism, and she remains the highest-selling female artist with $US44.4 million paid in 2014 for her flower painting, ‘Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1’.
Robyn Ravlich is a broadcaster and author of Skywriting: Making Radio Waves.